Cross Country / A Memoir of France, Chapitre 1: Past as Prelude

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011,2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

Prelude: Endings

My first memory ever — I was two and a half years old, and it was 1963 — is of my mom crying at the sink in our San Francisco home, with me looking up from the black speckled yellow linoleum kitchen floor and asking, “Mommy, what’s wrong?” and her explaining, through the tears, “President Kennedy has been assassinated.” The only memory I have of my parents together before they split up when I was 12 is my mom passionately embracing my dad when he returned after several hours during a violent electrical storm when we were living in rural Northern California, in the late 1960s — I was eight — and my dad had to traverse a narrow, steep, rough mountain road between our house and the Pomo reservation to get home. My next and only other memory is of them hiking on a mountain above the Tomales Bay ranch where Hans and Dina Angress, both survivors of the Holocaust, had their annual herring festival for the dozens of children they’d adopted and their extended clan. He in his big brown cowboy hat was intensely talking to her; they would separate soon after. It was 1973. I have no memories of my parents happily together.

Perhaps this is why, when a relationship ends, I see only the ending and have trouble remembering the good times. So I have hesitated to write a memoir of the 10 years I spent in France between 2000 and 2010, seven in Paris and three in a pre-historic village in the Dordogne department of the southwest, because it seems like a succession of failed relationships and friendships, most of which inevitably ended, frequently for reasons I didn’t understand. Often people just disappeared. So if there was no serious investment by these people in our friendships, if they were ready to go away for a petite nothing, if I didn’t really matter to them in the end, then why memorialize what for them was so disposable? Why return to the past and, by reviving them, relive not only the friendships but the pain and frustration and confusion of their dissolutions? Why go there?

Perhaps because I don’t want to keep looking for the inevitable bullet — that bullet that I sometimes feel has been chasing me and my generation since November 22, 1963. Perhaps because I can only move forward if I think of the endings as, rather, simple inevitable periods to perfect — and sometimes imperfect — stories. Perhaps because by reliving the stories, I can live more of them, and make the periods insignificant, harmless and natural signifiers. Perhaps because knowing, as even French people have admitted to me, that the only thing wrong with France is the French, my readers will appreciate and maybe even treat as heroic my quixotic efforts to transcend and defeat their recalcitrance, often calcified by my own American and native intransigence. Perhaps because in that story, in those efforts, I’ll find and resuscitate an ability to more consistently see the good in people and relationships, even when experience would make me gun shy. Perhaps because in recalling the beauty that I once saw in them — in these people, in our relationships, and in their (our?) country — I will be able to recover the beauty in my beholding, and my ability to behold and retain beauty.


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